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Best restaurant stocks to buy now

Image of fine dining setup in a restaurant; learn more about the best restaurant stocks to buy now

Sinking your teeth into a juicy burger from your favorite fast-food chain is comfort food at its finest. But as an investor, capitalizing on a flourishing restaurant empire may prove even more delicious. When you understand the art of identifying the best restaurant stocks to buy, the rewards can go beyond just a satisfying meal.

By the time you're done reading this article, you'll know the best restaurant stocks to buy now and why they offer a prime opportunity to get in on the ever-growing food industry, whether that’s fine dining to pumpkin spice lattes to your favorite corner burger chain.

Understanding the restaurant industry 

The restaurant industry is a diverse and flavorful mix. Eateries span from small mom-and-pop establishments to sprawling international franchises. Each one reflects the passions and ambitions of the people who created it. Restaurants also drive the economy. The food service industry reached a staggering $997 billion in sales in 2023. And as of January 2024, it provided over 12 million jobs in the United States. 

There have always been restaurants, but in recent years, the sector has witnessed remarkable growth. Changing consumer behavior has played a big role in this. Today's diners aren't only looking for sustenance. They want an experience. This shift has given rise to a demand for new flavors and diverse cuisine, including fusion food that explores and blends different cultural traditions.

But economic conditions shape the restaurant industry more than almost anything. During times of economic growth, people tend to dine out more frequently since they have more disposable income to spend on meals. During economic uncertainty or recession, they tend to tighten their belts and cut back on discretionary spending, including dining out. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the unpredictability of the industry. Overnight, busy dining rooms emptied, forcing restaurants to adapt or face closure.

However, the restaurant industry has proven resilient. People will always crave food and social interaction, making restaurants a staple. The key to identifying and investing in the best restaurant stocks lies in understanding how restaurants adapt to rapidly changing trends and economic conditions.

Key metrics for evaluating restaurant stocks 

If you're seeking the best restaurant stocks to buy now, start by looking for key metrics that evaluate the financial performance and potential of these companies, like revenue growth and profitability ratios, comparable sales growth and same-store sales.

Revenue growth captures the expansion and success of a restaurant business. It reflects a company's ability to attract more customers or increase the average spending per customer. By analyzing revenue growth over time, you can tell whether a restaurant is gaining momentum.

Profitability ratios are also significant. Metrics such as gross profit margin, operating margin and net profit margin can show a company's efficiency in managing costs and generating profits. A high gross profit margin means the restaurant can maintain a healthy markup on its menu items. In contrast, a strong operating margin suggests effective cost control and management of overhead expenses.

Comparable sales growth and same-store sales, meanwhile, reflect the performance of existing restaurants within a chain, excluding the impact of new store openings or closures. Positive comparable sales growth indicates that the restaurant is attracting repeat customers and increasing customer spending.

People are passionate about their favorite foods so that a strong brand can mean a loyal customer base. Market share is also crucial as it determines the restaurant's competitiveness within the industry. Debt levels and liquidity ratios are indicators of a company's financial health and ability to weather economic downturns.

Top performers in the restaurant sector

Now that you have a grasp on the essential elements to analyze when choosing the finest restaurant stocks or even junk food stocks, let's dive into some of the top performers in today's market.

McDonald’s Corporation

Regarding publicly traded fast food, McDonald's Corporation (NYSE: MCD) continues to dominate the global market. Its revenue growth has been steady, increasing by 7% in 2023 compared to the previous year. The company's gross profit margin stood at an impressive 41.27%, highlighting its ability to generate sizable profits even in a competitive fast food market. McDonald's has also experienced positive comparable sales growth, demonstrating its ability to attract repeat customers and maintain customer loyalty.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.

Known for fresh ingredients and customizable menu options, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE: CMG) has seen significant revenue growth, with a 14.3% increase in 2023 compared to the previous year. The company's commitment to sustainability and ethical sourcing has resonated with consumers, leading to a loyal customer base. Chipotle's profitability ratios are also impressive, with a gross profit margin of 16.42% and an operating margin of 15.8%.

Yum! Brands Inc.

With popular chains like KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut under its umbrella, Yum! Brands Inc. (NYSE: YUM) has a diversified portfolio that caters to different tastes and preferences. The company's revenue growth has been strong, increasing by 4.15% in 2023. 

Yum! has also made strategic investments in technology and digital platforms to enhance engagement and convenience. These investments have paid off, as the company has experienced positive comparable sales growth across its brands.

Shake Shack Inc.

Moving away from traditional public fast food companies, the rise of fast-casual concepts has generated significant interest in companies like burger chain Shake Shack, Inc. (NYSE: SHAK). The chain's revenue growth has been exceptional, with a remarkable 20.8% increase in 2023 compared to the previous year. This growth can be attributed to their commitment to quality ingredients and a unique dining experience that bridges the gap between fast food and casual dining. The company's gross profit margin of 1.8% reflects their ability to maintain profitability while providing high-quality food.

The Cheesecake Factory Inc.

The Cheesecake Factory Inc. (NASDAQ: CAKE) stands out as a top performer. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the company has shown resilience and adaptability. While fine dining establishments faced significant setbacks due to restrictions and closures, The Cheesecake Factory quickly pivoted to offer takeout and delivery options. This move allowed them to continue serving their loyal customer base and generate revenue.

The chain's revenue growth remained strong, with a 5.89% increase in 2023 compared to the previous year. This can be attributed to a well-established brand with an extensive menu selection as well as its signature cheesecakes. Despite the shift in consumer behavior towards more casual dining experiences, The Cheesecake Factory has maintained its appeal and continues to attract customers. The company's profitability ratios are also impressive, with a gross profit margin of 2.23% and an operating margin of 5.48%.

Darden Restaurants Inc.

At the intersection of the fine dining and casual dining sectors is Darden Restaurants Inc. (NYSE: DRI), which operates a range of well-known brands, including Ruth's Chris Steak House, Eddie V's, The Capital Grille, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, Yard House and Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen. Known for its Italian cuisine and warm, family-friendly atmosphere, Olive Garden, for instance, has continued to lure in diners with its famous unlimited breadsticks and salad.

Its parent company's revenue growth has been steady, increasing by 9.68% in 2023 compared to the previous year, showcasing its ability to attract both discerning customers who are willing to pay a premium for luxury dining and families looking for solid value. The company has managed to maintain a high gross profit margin of 10.42%, indicating its ability to command higher prices without compromising profitability.

One of Darden's strengths is its menu innovation. The restaurant regularly introduces new dishes and flavors, keeping customers excited and engaged. In addition to its staples, the restaurants have expanded their menus to include plant-based options and healthier choices. The company has also introduced user-friendly mobile apps that allow customers to conveniently make reservations, browse menus and place orders.

Emerging trends and opportunities 

The restaurant industry is constantly evolving. Competition is fierce, with social media-driven trends and fickle consumer demands often shaping how we eat out.

We're seeing increasing demand for sustainable and health-conscious options. With more awareness of both environmental impact and personal well-being, diners want to make choices that align with their values. Restaurants have responded by incorporating more plant-based and sustainable menu options. By sourcing local, organic ingredients and reducing their carbon footprint, they can attract this growing customer base.

Restaurants have also begun incorporating cutting-edge concepts and technologies. Ghost kitchens, for example, are a way to streamline the delivery process and reduce overhead costs. These kitchens operate solely for fulfilling online orders, allowing restaurants to focus on their core competencies while still meeting the demand for delivery.

Digital ordering platforms have also become essential tools for restaurants. Mobile apps and online ordering systems offer us the convenience of ordering and paying from our smartphones.

On the other side of the spectrum from convenience, there's a demand for experiential dining. Restaurants incorporate unique themes, interactive elements and entertainment into their spaces, from themed pop-up restaurants to immersive dining events like murder mystery dinners or interactive chef-led cooking classes.  

Meanwhile, the pandemic has accelerated demand for contactless dining experiences. Restaurants are implementing touchless menus, QR code ordering systems and online payment options to minimize physical contact and ensure the safety of their customers and staff.

Social media's rise has transformed how restaurants market themselves. Influencer partnerships, viral food trends and attention-grabbing presentations designed for Instagram and TikTok have become powerful tools for creating brand buzz.

Risks and challenges

Despite their strong performance, the choice to invest in restaurants, particularly in the current landscape, can be risky. One of the main concerns is regulatory challenges and compliance issues.

Health and safety standards, labor laws and food handling practices can impact a restaurant's operations and profitability. Compliance requires continuous monitoring, training and implementation of strict protocols. Smaller, independent restaurants and chains can often lack the resources to navigate them.

Consumer demand for sustainable and healthier choices may also require restaurants to adjust their supply chains and menus, which can be costly and time-consuming. And they must constantly innovate to best the competition.

Food prices are also volatile. Fluctuations in the cost of meat, produce and dairy can impact profitability. Restaurants have to carefully manage their pricing strategies and supplier relationships to mitigate the effects.

Labor shortages and increasing minimum wage requirements are also pressing. Finding and retaining skilled employees, particularly in the kitchen, can be tough. Restaurants may need to offer more competitive wages and benefits to attract and retain talent, which can add to their operating costs.

In recent years, pandemic-related lockdowns, capacity restrictions and safety protocols forced many restaurants to temporarily close or operate at limited capacities. This resulted in revenue losses and financial strain, and even closures and bankruptcies. The ongoing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the potential for future outbreaks still pose a risk.

Meanwhile, consumer confidence and behaviors have shifted. Some people are still hesitant to dine out due to concerns about the virus. As a result, the highest-earning restaurants have had to pivot and focus on takeout, delivery and outdoor dining to meet customer demands and stay afloat.

Tips for investing in restaurant stocks 

If you're looking to take a bite out of the restaurant industry by investing in a stock, start by conducting thorough research and due diligence.

Always start with a diversification strategy. Spreading your investments across different types of publicly traded restaurants, such as quick-service chains, fine dining establishments and casual dining brands can help balance your portfolio.

Understanding long-term versus short-term investment considerations is also crucial. While short-term investments may offer quick returns, consider the overall stability and growth potential of the restaurant industry in the long term. Look for publicly traded fast food companies that have a solid track record of sustained revenue growth and a clear strategy for adapting to emerging trends.

Examine key financial metrics such as revenue growth, profitability and debt levels. A strong balance sheet and healthy cash flow are indicators of a restaurant's ability to weather economic downturns and invest in future growth.

Also, consider the company's brand reputation and customer loyalty. Positive word-of-mouth and a loyal customer base can contribute to sustained revenue growth even in the face of increased competition.

Assess the company's competitive positioning within the market. Are they able to differentiate themselves from their competitors and stand out to consumers? Innovation, unique offerings and effective marketing can give a restaurant a competitive edge. For example, investing in ghost kitchen concepts and digital ordering platforms ahead of the curve can signal a forward-thinking approach.

Keep an eye on industry trends and consumer preferences. Understanding what drives diners' choices and how the market is evolving can help you predict which restaurant stocks might perform well in the future.

Consider the impact of economic conditions, regulatory changes and global events like pandemics or natural disasters. A restaurant's ability to adapt to these challenges can determine its long-term success.

Lastly, don't forget the importance of timing in the stock market. Monitoring market trends, economic indicators and industry news can help you make the most informed decisions on when to buy or sell restaurant shares.

All that sizzles is not steak

The restaurant industry may be as tempting as the delicacies it sells, but the success or failure of a restaurant stock begins and ends with earnings reports. These reports play a crucial role in investment decision-making for the restaurant industry. They provide insights into a company's financial health, performance and growth prospects. Revenue growth, profitability and debt levels can help you assess a restaurant stock's stability and potential.

Pay attention to not just the numbers but also the narrative behind them, understanding how external factors like market trends, consumer preferences and economic conditions can impact a restaurant's earnings.

As the restaurant industry continues to evolve and face various challenges, as a hungry investor, you must adapt alongside it.

Ready to sink your teeth into the best food stocks? MarketBeat can help you scour the market for the most promising opportunities.


Still have questions about investing in stocks for restaurants? Here are some common FAQs to help guide you through the process.

What is the best food stock to buy right now? 

The best food stock to buy right now depends on your investment goals, risk tolerance and market conditions. For instance, you might prefer established restaurant chains with a history of strong performance, like McDonald's or Chipotle, for more stability. On the other hand, you may be interested in up-and-coming restaurant stocks with high growth potential, such as Shake Shack.

Conduct thorough research and consider consulting with a financial advisor to determine the best food stock for your portfolio.

Are any restaurants publicly traded? 

Yes, many restaurants are publicly traded on the stock market. Some well-known restaurants that are publicly traded include McDonald's, Chipotle, Shake Shack and Starbucks Corporation (NASDAQ: SBUX).

You can purchase shares of these companies through stock exchanges, owning a stake in the business and potentially benefiting from the financial performance and growth of these chains.

What is the average stock price for restaurants? 

The average stock price of restaurant stocks can vary widely depending on the specific company and its performance in the market. Generally, well-established chains like McDonald's or Starbucks tend to have higher stock prices due to their brand strength and consistent revenue streams. On the other hand, newer or smaller restaurant companies may have lower stock prices but higher growth potential.

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